Blinken Tries to Win Back Gulf States as Houthis Threaten World Oil Supply

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a press conference in Geneva on January 21, 202
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken attempted to mend President Joe Biden’s increasingly strained relationship with Gulf states on Tuesday in a meeting with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, following a conversation with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have both expressed increasing frustration with the Biden administration’s failure to address the potential global implications of the seven-year-old Yemeni civil war, which overflowed into Saudi Arabia last week as the Iran-backed Houthi terrorist organization bombed oil facilities belonging to the Saudi state oil corporation Aramco. Saudi officials have repeatedly warned that Houthi attacks on oil assets could threaten the global fuel supply at a time in which the war between Russia and Ukraine has triggered shortages and record-high prices.

The Houthi movement is a Shiite jihadist organization that seized Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, at the onset of the civil war. Human rights groups have accused the Houthis of blocking shipments of food and other critical aid to the country, prompting what has rapidly become a famine. The Houthis fight under the slogan “Allahu Akbar, Death to America, Death to Israel, a Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

President Biden stripped the Houthis of their Foreign Terrorist Organization designation as one of his first acts in office last year, greatly expanding their ability to access “humanitarian” funding.

Prior to this week’s Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting, Saudi Arabia raised its oil prices yet again, apparently rejecting pleas from Biden to both produce more oil and lower prices. The Gulf states, especially UAE, have also ignored Biden’s calls to marginalize Russia in light of the Ukraine war. Biden’s ban on importing Russian oil to the United States, alongside “green” energy policies that limit domestic production, have led to severe gas price increases in America.

As recently as three weeks ago, anonymously sourced reports indicated that Saudi and Emirati leaders were simply refusing to schedule phone calls with Biden officials.

Blinken met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince bin Zayed on Tuesday in Morocco, one of three stops on his ongoing Middle East and North Africa tour. The tour notably omitted visits to the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

“The Secretary reaffirmed the countries’ close partnership and reviewed ways to broaden and deepen wide-ranging cooperation. The Secretary underscored that we remain committed to helping the UAE defend itself against threats stemming from Yemen and elsewhere in the region,” State Department spokesman Ned Price relayed in a statement. “He welcomed the UAE’s support for a truce leading to a ceasefire in Yemen and reiterated that the only path to a durable peace is through dialogue and diplomacy.”

The Saudi news outlet Al Arabiya noted that, during the public part of the encounter, Blinken told bin Zayed that America was “determined to do everything we can to help you defend yourselves effectively against” the Houthi threat from neighboring Yemen.

The State Department also emphasized that Blinken attempted to focus the meeting on “Putin’s unjustified war against the people of Ukraine,” though it did not list any particular response from bin Zayed.

Blinken’s phone call with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal, according to another statement from Price, similarly featured a commitment to help protect against Houthi threats, but no specifics.

“The Secretary reiterated the U.S. commitment to bolstering Saudi Arabia’s defenses against threats in the region and emphasized the importance of protecting civilians in Yemen,” the State Department spokesman said, adding that Blinken demanded of Saudi Arabia a “more inclusive and comprehensive peace process,” without elaborating.

Al Arabiya indicated extreme frustration with the Biden administration in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh  that appeared to impede conversations with officials from both countries.

“Washington’s Arab allies chafe at what they see as declining US commitment to security in their region in the face of Iranian involvement in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon which has nudged them into common cause with former arch-foe Israel,” the Saudi outlet reported. “Gulf states have for years been frustrated at what they see as US inaction in confronting Iran’s role in the region, but their concerns have grown since Joe Biden became president 14 months ago.”

In an interview with Moroccan media on Tuesday, Blinken sidestepped addressing those frustrations directly. Asked if “the relations between the United States and the Gulf countries are at their highest,” Blinken offered an indirect answer.

“We have partnerships that have existed for many years, and those partnerships are essential and important to us, not only in terms of security issues, but the future of our countries as well,” Blinken replied, according to a State Department transcript of the exchange. “I think it was an important time as well to not only strengthen those partnerships, but to strengthen the idea that the United States is invested in those partnerships. This is the message that I wanted to convey to my colleagues.”

Urgency around the Houthi terrorists’ potential impact on global gasoline supplies skyrocketed last week after the group claimed responsibility for bombing several Saudi cities featuring oil storage and refining facilities. One of the attacks, in Jeddah, occurred on an Aramco facility near the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, prompting civilian panic. The attacks followed a similar series of bombings against civilian oil facilities throughout March. Gulf states have also accused the Houthis of targeting oil tankers to intensify global fuel concerns.

The attacks, a Saudi government source told the state outlet SPA last week, “will affect the kingdom’s production capacity and its ability to fulfill its obligations, which undoubtedly threatens the security and stability of energy supplies to global markets.”

“It goes without saying that if this security supply is impacted, it will impact us … but more fundamentally, I think it also will affect the world economy,” Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman conceded on Tuesday.

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